The Theory of Korean Traditional Theatre Space

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Ph. D.  Sun-Hi Shin

Presentation for the KTAA/OISTAT Scenography Symposium 2006, Seoul, Korea



§ The Mountain Stage

From the ancient to the modern times, Korean rituals were formed with the mountain at the center.  The myths of the mountain hold the views of Korean people on the cosmos and the life of after-death. Consequently, the season's ceremonies and all rituals and festivals related to the good and bad luck were performed with the mountains and they were introduced to be the set that would sanctify the secular space. Since the mountain set was the object of worship and an altar in itself, it could not be dealt with in the principles of the ordinary scenery. The stage set in the indoor theatre is regarded as the imminent environment for human action and the concept of its natural space is specified in the fixed perspective. On the other hand, as for the ritual theatre, we apply the human action to the nature per se and magnify it to be the cosmic action. Therefore, the mountain stage should be seen in perspective of the outdoor theatre.

The mountain for Korean people has been the sacred land on the earth. According to the shaman song of Jeju Island, 「Chogamje (初監祭)」, the myth of creation and the formation of the mountain read as follows: "In the beginning of the world, the heaven and the earth were in chaos. There was no distinction between the heaven and the earth. Then the heaven and the earth opened wide; the heaven opened; the mountain arose from the earth; and water came out. In darkness, the stars started to shine in the sky; a god of heaven sent the sun and the moon; and the order placed itself on the earth as it shaped the world as it is." According to the song, the mountain was the first land; the mountains and the streams formed the world on the earth.

According to the Dangun mythology, Hwanwung descended into the sacred tree on top of Mount Taebaek and opened the city of a god(fig. 1). It reveals that the mountain should be the sun-shone white mountain and the first altar that bridges the heaven and the earth. This is commonly related to the mythology of the cosmos mountain and the cosmos tree in the Northeast Asia where the sun worshiping was practiced. For instance, the mythology of the Yakut tribe reads as follows:

When the first man came to the world, there was a high mountain over the vast and bright field in the east. On top of the mountain, there was a huge tree. It arose into the sky with its seven layers and its roots sank down the earth into the world of depth. The resin flowed from the tree and gathered at the bottom. It was very clear and balmy. Since the ancient time, the mountain was called the huge white mountain and all the inhabitants, whether men or beasts, were brightly shone in white.

As it shows in 「Chogamje (初監祭)」of Jeju Island and the mythology of the Yakut tribe, the Korean shamanist space is divided into three worlds: over, on and under the earth. The world over the earth was regarded as the heaven and the world under the earth, that of the dead. The natural objects on the earth such as caves, mountains, water, trees and rocks were regarded to bridge the heaven and the underworld vertically and worshiped as the objects in the sacred mountain. The forefathers in the underworld were also worshiped as the sacred spirits along with the sun, the moon and the heavenly bodies in the world over the earth. Their spirits as well as the sacred ones were regarded to move freely through the vertical path; the underworld was regarded to be at the end of this world. According to this world view, Taegon Kim, a scholar of Korean shamanism, sees the visible being on the earth as the cosmos and the invisible in the underworld as the chaos. He places in the chaos the roots for existence of all creatures on the earth including the human beings.

According to the ancient Hindu mythology of creation, the mountain is the pilar of the universe which has been raised up in the wheel of wind(fig. 2). With this Mount Sumi being the axis, the underworld is located under the earth. With the mountain at the center, the multi-circular form of the Mandara world has been formulated on the earth(fig. 3). However, the Korean shamanist mountain is not only the space that connects the three worlds but the mountain of the heaven that belongs to the world of the dead closer than to this world on the earth. The sacred mountain where one could reach only after the world of the dead appears to be the flowery field in the western paradise over the mountains and the streams according to the shamanist ritual, Baridegi. Several characters like Gongdeok grandmother and grandfather whom Baridegi runs into on her journey are all sacred spirits in the sacred mountains and streams as well as the spirits of her ancestors.

The concept of Korean people that the mountain is the place to be buried after death and the sacred place connected to the world of the dead has developed the system not only in the shamanist religion concerned with the mountain but in the rituals worshiping a god of heaven. The mountain becomes a god of heaven and earth signifying the authority of a king and the defense of a nation as revealed in the following stories: Dangun went into Asadal (阿斯達) after his death; Hokyeong (虎景), the founder of the Koryeo dynasty, fought with a tiger and got married with a mountain god, Pyeongna (平那山神). It also comes into the real space for the birth and death as Madame Yuhwa (柳花夫人) has been conceived to be sacred. The ancient rituals of worshiping the heaven were enacted around an altar on top of the mountain(fig. 4) and came to the river between a big cave in the east and a shrine or a sanctuary to enact the ritual of water, which was called the Dongmaeng Festival(fig. 5). In the Kingdom of Baekje, they practiced the rituals of worshiping the heaven in building a sanctuary and an altar in the south of the palace. The kings practiced the itinerant rituals through the mountain shrines in Ilsan (日山)․Osan (吳山)․Busan (浮山). The Kingdom of Shilla designated the three mountains and the five mountain peaks as the sacred places and the kings practiced rituals as they toured around in four seasons. They regarded the real mountains as the space for the rituals.

As a matter of fact, the mountains were the objects of worship and located aloof from the palaces and the citadels. This was more or less the same as in the rituals in a village. Therefore, aloof from the secular space, the shrine of a mountain god was not mingled with the space of the human beings where some festivals and ceremonial meetings were held. It was the sacred pole (神竿) that was devised to escort the mountain god around(fig. 6).

Based on the sun worship, the Korean ritual of worshiping a god of heaven utilized the devices of the cosmos tree in its accessaries and attires. The sanctified cosmos tree is the one signifying the central axis of the cosmos mountain and can be seen to be the sanctified mountain. In the shaman song of Hamkyeong Province, 「Song of Creation」, the cosmos tree also appears to be the bronze pole (the cosmos pole) that stands in the opening space between the heaven and the earth in the beginning of the world. Both the cosmos tree and the cosmos pole have been put up as the various types of the set in the rituals. For instance, the sacred pole(fig. 9) was regarded as the cosmos pole that should bridge the heaven and the earth; it was specified into three parts such as a sacred flag (神旗)․ a pole (長竿)․a bird pole (鳥竿)(fig. 10); it became a set for welcoming gods and moving around the sacred spaces; the village forest and the village tree called Tangsanmok (堂山木) became a set for the cosmos tree by accommodating a mountain god in the fixed area. Also the megalith and the artificial mountain were the sets for sanctifying a space by placing the cosmos mountains in four directions of a village and in its center. Thus, being the vertical paths, all natural objects  became the sets related to the concept of a mountain and became ritualistic in the space of rituals and festivals.

In the Era of the Three Kingdoms, the palace ceremonies were enacted in a palace garden or in the courtyard of a temple that belonged to the royal family or in the yard out of the temple door. The high placed dragon and the flag pole (幢杆) were the ritualistic sets for a ritual space.(fig. 11) The dragon and the pole were the symbols for the heavenly god and his delegate, the king. In Baekje-geumdong-daehyangno (a ceremonial censer made of gold and bronze in the Kingdom of Baekje)(fig. 12), the three mountains overlap one another and form a great mountain. The censer shows the phoenix that symbolizes the sun and the dragon that symbolizes the water and they represent the world of heaven and earth from top to bottom. The censer also shows the ancestors who appear like the unworldly people and includes the sacred trees and the sacred beasts, all of which represent the existence of the mountain gods in detail.

According to the『Samguk-Yusa』(the history book of the Era of the Three Kingdoms), when the kings practiced rituals in touring around, they played the sacred music and dance of the gods of the mountain and the earth. The priests of the sacred mountain were regarded to perform in those rituals. Like the example of Igyeondae (a ceremonial pavilion in front of the East Sea)(fig. 13), the sacred music and dance was hoisted on a roofless platform or a pavilion. The raised platforms and pavilions were built in the concept of stage where the gods appear.

The beasts that abode in the sacred mountain celebrated in the festivals such as  Baekhijapgi (百戱雜技). While the dragon, the phoenix, the elephant and the horse are the sacred beasts of Buddhism, the ox, the bear and the tiger, the beasts of the folk plays since the Koryeo dynasty. They have been regarded as the guardian spirits of the mountain since the ancient times. The cosmos tree that descends to the secular world leaving the sacred mountain used to open the space for the festival in the citadel in the form of the mountain wagon at the time of Palgwanhoe (a ritual related to the setting sun where they used to light the red lanterns). The mountain wagon was developed to Yesandae which held the real shape of a mountain and appeared in the early Chosun dynasty. Since Pyosan (標山) and Chaak (車樂, the music performance on a mountain wagon) started in the Japanese Age of Nara (奈良, 710 A.D.-794 A.D.), which were deeply influenced by the ceremonial music of Koguryeo (高句麗, 37 B.C.-668 A.D.), Baekje (百濟, 18 B.C.-660 A.D.), and Shilla (新羅, 57 B.C.-935 A.D.), we may assume that the mountain wagon was used in the Era of the Three Kingdoms.

Since Chaesan (彩山, a painted mountain), Deungsan (燈山, a mountain of lights) and the fifty-foot tall Chaebungsan (綵棚山, a mountain stage of colored silk) used to function in lighting and holding up the miscellaneous in Yeondeunghoe(a ritual related to the rising of the first full moon and they used to light the white lanterns)(fig. 14a, 14b) and Palgwanhoe(fig. 15a, 15b) of the Koryeo dynasty, the mountain became the symbolic set for the rituals and provided the background scenery for Gamuak (歌舞樂, a song-dance-music performance) and Japgi (雜技, a spectacular parade). In the night, they used to light the innumerable lanterns in Chaesan and to symbolize the light of wisdom in the mountain. They made the set of the religiously sanctified objects and shaped the space for the ritualistic festival theatre.

The mountain in the palace ceremonies of the Chosun dynasty became the background for Chungjaeak (呈才樂 palace music and dance) that highlighted Seowangmo playing against Bongraesan (蓬萊山) of Taoism(fig. 16). In Jinchan (進饌 ceremonial feast) and Garyeo (嘉禮 royal wedding) performed in the palace, the mountain was positioned at the back of the  royal throne as the folding screen painted with the Five mountain peaks with the sun and the moon (日月五峯屛) was set up. The pedestal that is the ritualistic space as a set for bogye came in touch with Wangak (王幄, the king's tent)(fig. 17). In the air, Chaebung was set up at the same height of the palace eaves and sanctified the ritualistic space. In the ritualistic space in the palace, the mountain was placed as the sacred place in the court(fig 18), whereas in all performances on the temporary wagons out of the palace, the mountain was placed on the right and left sides of the Gwanghwa gate and became the huge monuments that all people could look up(fig. 19). On the mountains, some wise and loyal courtesans dead and gone and the figures of the ancient history and the animals were displayed, since they were regarded as the ancestors and the sacred spirits who would protect the country.(fig. 20)

Also the sacred beasts entered in the yard or the plaza under the mountains as the bear, the tiger and the mountain animals of the masquerades and the crafty performances. It proves that the Korean performances on the temporary wagons have developed within their unique religion of the mountain gods even if they have been influenced by Sanak (散樂) of China and the Central Asia.

In the diary of Manjejunhu of the early Age of Japanese Muromachi (室町), an article reads of Nara Gohukuji (興福寺) Yennen (延年) in September 1429 (Eeko Kannen, 永享元年): That a huge size of Gonryunsan (崑崙山, a sacred mountain) was set up; that the small stages symbolizing little mountains were set in each sides in Daepungryu (大風流, a spectacle of Buddhist ceremony) on which the children in colorful costumes dramatically praised the virtues of Buddha from the ancient stories. Even though it is not clear how the set of Gonryunsan looked like, the space set for the mountain within the Japanese temple may be said to be the stage for the gods just like Tongcheondae (通天臺) in the Chanese Age of Han (漢, 202 B.C.-220 A.D.) where the girls could only step on and Chimhyangsan (沈香山) in the Chosun dynasty where the girls step out of the lotus flowers.

The Korean rituals have presented the various methods in building up the cosmos mountain, that is the center of the heaven and the earth, as a set. From the Era of the Three Kingdoms, the godly spirits of the mountain descended to the village as the cosmos tree and sanctified the secular space with the sacred music and dance; in the Koryeo dynasty, they lit the world with the lanterns in the mountain; in the Chosun dynasty, they told us some funny stories with some tricks and sometimes became the set for a festival such as a fountain; the mountain used to lead the king as Yesandae (曳山臺, a wheeled mountain stage)(fog. 21a, 21b) and to provide the ceremonial feast with an outdoor stage, called Daesandae (大山臺, a big mountain stage).

Consequently, the Korean rituals represent the bridging world of man and nature with the mountain set. And the tradition has been inherited as the unique one in the Korean theatre history. The mountain sanctified the ritualistic space in the forms of the sacred pole uniting the cosmos tree with the flower of reincarnation, Chaesan (綵山)(fig. 22) decorated in silk and jewels and Chaesan (彩山) colored in some forms. From the perspective of a stage, the altar on top of the mountain turned out to be Sandae (山臺, a mountain stage), whereas the pavilion(Fig. 23a, 23b) at the center of a temple or a citadel was the architectural Sandae as the stage for the official ceremonies.